It is difficult to know sometimes what is fact and what is popular opinion, theory, verifiable history, tradition legend. Just because “everyone knows” or “our Hebrew school teacher said” doesn’t mean it’s true. And sometimes even what is true isn’t. After all, as they say, history is written by the victors.
19. What does the word Chanukah mean?
A: The most common translation is “dedication,” referring (as will be explained in more detail below) to the re-dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem after it was desecrated. A more accurate translation would be “initiation.” The word derives from the same three-letter root as the Hebrew word for “education,” chinuch, which initiates learning. In the Greek version of John 10:22–23, the winter festival Jesus attends in the Temple in Jerusalem is called egkainia, which can be translated either as “dedication” or as “renewal of religious services.”
20. Are there any other etymologies of the word?
A: There are at least two other theories as to the origin of the word:
1. It can be broken up into the words ham nu (the “m” and “n” elided into “n”) – they rested or camped– and K-H, the two Hebrew letters which, when given their numerical values, equal twenty-five. In other words, they rested (stopped fighting) on the twenty-fifth of the month, which is the Hebrew date of the holiday.
2. It is an acronym for the Hebrew phrase Chet Nerot V’halakha K’Beit Hillel – “Eight candles according to the Law and House of Hillel” (question #6; question #38)
21. How did the Maccabean revolt begin?
A: The events of the holiday are described in the two Books of Maccabees, part of the Jewish and Protestant Books of the Apocrypha (questions # 8 and 9).
The Books tell the story of how Antiochus IV Epiphanes, ruler of the Seleucid (Hellenistic Syrian) Empire, introduced Greek culture to Judea. Worse, he forbade Jewish worship and practices, including Shabbat, holidays, and circumcision, appointed his own follower to be High Priest, and desecrated the Temple in Jerusalem by erecting statues of Greek gods and sacrificing non-Kosher animals.
In 167 BCE in the town of Modi’in, a Jewish priest named Mattathias defied the order of a Seleucid officer and refused to make sacrifices to Greek gods. Mattathias then killed the Hellenized Jew who stepped forward to make the sacrifices, and destroyed the altar. These events were the Jewish “shot heard around the world” that incited the revolt of the Jews, led by Mattathias and his five sons (Jonathan, Simon, Judah, Eleazar, and Yohanan, known collectively as the Maccabees). They overturned the Seleucid occupation of Judea and rededicated the Temple in Jerusalem in 165 BCE.
22. When was the holiday first celebrated?
A: According to the Second Book of Maccabees, the first celebration was after the re-dedication of the Temple, with “the festival of Sukkot celebrated in the month of Kislev” (question #32). The holiday is discussed by Josephus (questions #28-29) and mentioned in the- Christian Bible (question #30). There is evidence that the holiday was widely popular from early times; in fact, one Talmudic sage explained that Chanukah was not discussed in the Mishnah because it was so well known there was no need to set down its laws. The rituals and legends developed over the millennia since the original historic events, and continue to do so.
23. What is the meaning of Maccabee?
A: Even though “Maccabees” is used to refer to Mattathias, his sons, and their followers, Mattathias’s son Judah was the only one who was originally given that name. In First Maccabees, the other four sons with their “last names” are Johanan Gadi, Simon Thassi, Eleazar Avaran, and Jonathan Apphus. The origins of the second names are unknown.
The word Maccabee is similar to the Hebrew word for “hammer,” makevet, and is usually translated as such. Judah (and his family and followers) were called “hammers” because of the ferocity of their fighting and the strength of their blows.
An alternate etymology is that the word is an acronym for their battle cry (first declaimed by Moses’ sister Miriam after the Israelites successfully crossed the Reed Sea, and still part of the daily Jewish liturgy), “Mi Chamocha B’elohim Adonai?” – “Who is like you among the gods, Adonai?”
24. Who were the Hellenists?
A: The Hellenists were followers of Greek culture, regardless of the ethnicity of their birth. Hellenistic Jews were among the first assimilationists. According to some sources, there were those who even went so far as to have their circumcisions reversed, so they could participate in Greek games, which were always in the nude.
25. Who were the Hasmoneans?
A: The Hasmonean Dynasty were the descendants of the Maccabees, established by Simon twenty years after the Maccabee victory. The name comes from Hasmoneus, Mattathias’s ancestor, variously identified as his grandfather, great-grandfather, or great-great-grandfather or plus-greats. They were the priest-kings who ruled Judea, first (140-116 BCE) semi-autonomously as part of the Seleucid Empire; then, beginning with the fall of the Seleucids to the Romans, as a fully independent kingdom, until Judea became a client-state of Rome in 63 BCE. They continued to rule until the Herodian Era was established in 37 BCE, although Herod did try to bolster his legitimacy by marrying Miriamne, one of the last of the Hasmoneans.
26. Were the Maccabees fighting for religious or political freedom?
Religion and politics were inseparable in the ancient world. The Maccabean Revolt was a struggle – and ultimate victory – for both religious and political autonomy.
It was a war that lasted a lot longer than the retelling seems to indicate, and it was also in part a civil war, a battle between the Judeans who were Hellenized and those who resisted the forces of assimilation (question #24).
During the Vietnam War era, counter-cultural Jews referred to the Maccabean Revolt as a national liberation movement and to the Maccabees as guerrilla fighters.